Putin’s foreign friends complain of bullying, wonder why they are “toxic”
German newspaper Die Zeit last week published an interview with Matthias Warnig, head of the company that was due to take charge of the never-opened Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Europe. Warnig, who worked for East Germany’s Stasi in the 1970s, got to know Vladimir Putin when the latter was a KGB agent. In the 2000s, that connection earned Warnig millions of dollars as he worked with major Russian state companies and played the role of Putin’s trusted contact in Europe. Now, Warnig is complaining to journalists about his “toxicity” — and describing conversations with the Russian president. We took a look at how things are going for both Warnig and some of Putin’s other European confidants.
- In the Die Zeit interview, Warnig recounted several conversations with Putin. In one of them, the president’s friend tried to find out the aims of the war in Ukraine, only to be told that they were “a state secret.” Another time, Warnig allegedly warned the Russian president that he could not win a war in Ukraine. The boss of Nord Stream 2 also revealed that Putin had invited him to come and live in Moscow — but he refused because he did not want to live “behind high walls.”
- Warnig also complained in the interview that he is now regarded as toxic: people refuse to do business with him, his cards and bank accounts are blocked and he has to get used to paying for everything in cash again.
- As reported by WSJ and Focus, Warning got to know Putin in Dresden when he was a member of East Germany’s feared Stasi security service and Russia’s future president was working for the KGB. In the 1990s, Warnig began a career in business, holding senior positions at Dresdner Bank. Later, he joined the board of directors of several Russian companies, including Rosneft (until he left last spring). For 12 years, Warnig was also an independent director for Rossiya Bank, owned by Yury Kovalchuk, a close friend of Putin. In addition, the German was an independent director at state-owned bank VTB and aluminum giant Rusal, as well as chairing the board of state-owned pipeline company Transneft.
- Warnig is not the only foreigner to make a career out of his friendship with the Russian president. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is another example. Until recently, Schroeder was on the board of directors for Rosneft and held a seat on Gazprom’s supervisory board. However, his close ties to the Kremlin have caused him serious financial problems since the start of the Ukraine war. Last year, he was even banned from a restaurant on the German island of Nordeney.
- Another well-known friend of Putin’s in Europe is Austria’s former foreign minister Karin Kneissl. Putin attended her wedding in 2018 and said that Kneissl was his first friend in Austria. However, the Austrian politician has found that her friendship with the Russian president led to harassment that contributed to her decision to move to Lebanon. Now, she blames Europe’s leaders, particularly France’s Emmanuel Macron, for doing nothing to improve diplomatic relations between Russia and the European Union. Like Schroeder, Kneissl sat on Rosneft’s board until last year.
- Other senior European politicians have also been obliged to leave lucrative positions at Russian state companies in the aftermath of the Russian invasion. Former Finnish prime minister Esko Aho left the supervisory board of Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, last February. At the same time, ex-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi left the board of carsharing company Delimobile.
Why the world should care
We cannot know for certain whether Warnig really warned Putin against going to war in Ukraine. However, we can say that Warnig’s fate is a perfect example of how foreign politicians who cultivated friendships with Putin and accepted plum positions at Russian state companies now find themselves shunned by Western society.